This is my second encounter with playwright Mark St Germain’s fictional encounter between a dying Sigmund Freud and Oxford don and novelist C.S. Lewis.
The first was in 2013, a handsomely budgeted production at the Theatre Royal that was derailed by a star not quite on top of his game (or the script).
This staging, produced by indie company Clock and Spiel, looks almost as good, is technically sharp, and is securely performed by Yannick Lawry and Nicholas Papademetriou. The latter’s depiction of a pain-wracked Freud is among the best work I’ve seen from him.
The setting is Freud’s London home in Hampstead, London. It’s 1939 and England is on the cusp of war, which so far has proven only a minor inconvenience for Lewis, who arrives an hour late for his meeting with Freud because all the trains have been commandeered for evacuees.
Lewis is expecting a dressing down, having satirised Freud in his allegorical fiction The Pilgrim’s Regress. It turns out that Freud doesn’t care a jot, thus clearing the air for a spirited tet-a-tet on the existence of God – precisely at the time when Europe has good reason to question it.
With both men holding entrenched positions – Freud was fiercely atheistic while Lewis was one of England’s leading Christian apologists at that time – stalemate seems most likely.
But even though there’s no real possibility that either man will give ground, Freud’s Last Session proves solidly engrossing thanks to lively discussion over subjects ranging from the poetry of Milton to the differences between British and Jewish humour. Cracks in each man’s dogma are gently pried open but that’s about as far as it goes.
There isn’t much by way of action (apart from an air raid alert that sends both men galloping for their gas masks) but director Hailey McQueen keeps this compact one-act affair moving well on Tyler Ray Hawkins’ meticulously detailed set, which takes up the full width of the Reginald Theatre.
Papademetriou has to age a good 20 years to play the 83-year-old Freud and is very convincing. He makes the old man’s physical agonies compelling and difficult to watch. Lawry, who trained in the UK and has the English stiff upper lip down pat, has the less-interesting role but finds a pulse under Lewis scholarly reserve.
This meeting of great minds doesn’t produce great theatre but this depiction of two people engaged in argument without stooping to bellicosity and disrespect is easy to sit with and appreciate for what it is.